6:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Celtics -6, Over/Under: 218.5
It may have seemed unlikely that we would have reached this point five months ago, but the NBA Playoffs finally begin today in Orlando with a flurry of matchups as the Sixth-Seeded Philadelphia 76ers battle the Third-Seeded Boston Celtics in Game One of their First Round Series from ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Is it any surprise that following a Regular Season that was littered with injuries and questions about their chemistry on the hardwood, that those themes would indeed following the 76ers (43-30, 6th in Eastern Conference) into the Postseason? Indeed, when the campaign came to a screeching halt thanks to the Covid-19 Pandemic this was a team that certainly didn’t look like a contender heading down the stretch. All-Star Point Guard, Ben Simmons (16.4 PTS, 58.0% FG, 28.6% 3FG, 7.8 REB, 8.0 AST, 2.1 STL, 0.6 BLK, 20.4 PER), who had been one of the greatest conundrums in the league this season, suffered a back injury shortly before the lockdown that would have surely kept him out of the remainder of the campaign. However, the four-month hiatus afforded he and Philadelphia the luxury of time to rehab from surgery, meaning that Brett Brown’s charges would enter the Association’s restart in Central Florida with a clean bill of health and a new lease on life, perhaps even making good on the lofty expectations placed upon them entering 2019-2020. After all, the Sixers were a trendy pick to reach the Finals in many circles, and this proverbial do-over appeared to be a gift.
However, that really hasn’t been the case thus far, for their performance since the Restart has bene nothing short of a mixed bag. Even with a healthy Simmons back in action, the questions about his chemistry/compatibility with fellow All-Star, Joel Embiid (23.0 PTS, 47.7% FG, 33.1% 3FG, 11.6 REB, 3.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.3 BLK, 25.8 PER), persisted as Philadelphia struggled to a 4-4 finish, unable to ascend any higher in the East. His reluctance to shoot the basketball from the perimeter aside, the former is a truly unique talent: a 6-10 Point Guard with fluid movement, excellent ballhandling and distribution skills, with the potential to be absolutely suffocating on the defensive end of the court. With that said, his shooting struggles prevent Brown from utilizing the necessary spacing to properly utilize his best players, particularly Embiid, who at 7-0, 250 lbs needs as much space as possible, particularly in the Halfcourt. This issue has only been heightened since the addition of veteran Forward, Al Horford (11.9 PTS, 45.0% FG, 35.0% 3FG, 6.8 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.9 BLK, 15.7 PER), in the Offseason; very few teams employ two bigs on the court at the same time, and while he’s certainly versatile enough to accommodate playing alongside Embiid, he’s not necessarily going to function well floating around the perimeter, and with Simmons on the floor trying to operate in the Post (where he’s improved greatly), there’s just not enough space for all three to operate. Furthermore, the statistics support the argument; in the three games with a healthy Simmons on court the 76ers averaged 108.1 Points per 100 Possessions and were outscored by a disappointing 7.3 Points over that span, though without him they have scored 121.3 Points per 100 Possessions en route to outscoring opponents by a margin of 3.7 Points. Seriously, that’s night and day folks, which only further complicates the problem facing Brown and his Coaching Staff: you are fortunate to have not one, but TWO All-Stars, who have yet to enter the prime of the respective careers, but they have proven exceedingly difficult to pair together. Simply put, for all their talent and potential Simmons and Embiid just don’t complement each other, AT ALL. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until next season for them to continue to solve this problem, for after just three contests Simmons suffered a dislocated left knee, effectively ending his campaign altogether and rendering any discussion of how Brown & Co will utilize him the these Playoffs moot.
So moving forward, the Sixers can be expected to proceed with approach of planting Embiid in the Paint and surrounding him a bevy of shooters, which while on paper should work, is also predicated on the 26-Year Old holding up his end of the bargain as well. Though he’s capable of putting together truly eye-opening performances, he’s oftentimes showed a propensity to drift through games, even in the Playoffs, which was evident last season. Granted, part of that is in all likelihood due to the volume of injuries that he has sustained throughout his young career and the ensuing load management that have become necessary as a result; the Cameroon International sat out the entirety of his first two seasons after being drafted Third Overall in 2016 due to multiple foot surgeries, and has yet to participate in any more than Sixty-Four Games in a single term, missing twenty-two this season. As you can imagine, Philadelphia’s success has been relative to his; the team is 32-19 with a healthy Embiid this season, and in those victories he has averaged 24.6 Points on 51.0% shooting from the field, though in defeat he as scored 20.3 Points on a much poorer 42.0% shooting overall. This inconsistency was evident in his three meetings with Boston this year, managing a mere Fifteen Points on 5-of-14 shooting (35.7%) in the Season Opener, and only Eleven Points on a dreadful 1-of-11 shooting (9.1%), bookending 38-Point explosion in which he torched the Celtics on 12-of-21 shooting (57.1%) along with 12-of-14 from the Free-Throw Line (85.7%). With Simmons sidelined, this is Embiid’s opportunity to dominate a smaller team that will likely be forced to commit a plethora of defenders his way, which will open up good looks for the Supporting Cast. If they can make Boston pay, then this series could very well turn into an upset, but if not then this voyage through the Bubble will end in frustration.
Meanwhile, if there is a dark horse to come out of the East under the outstanding circumstances that have governed the NBA’s Bubble in Orlando, it would have to be the Celtics (48-24, 3rd in Eastern Conference), who appear to have a very advantageous path through the Playoffs. Let’s be completely honest folks: Boston caught a MAJOR break with Philadelphia losing the aforementioned Simmons for the rest of the campaign. As we stated earlier, they were only 1-3 against the Sixers this season, with the versatile Point Guard wrecking havoc against their smaller Backcourt on both ends of the court, and particularly in transition. It also needs to be said that despite their offensive issues, Philly is far better defensively with Simmons on the floor, and that shouldn’t be a problem for Brad Stevens’ moving forward. In those four meetings, the denizens of Beantown shot just 43.2% from the field, 32.4% from beyond the arc, and dishing out just 18.5 Assists (their fewest against any single opponent in 2019-2020), all the while getting manhandled on the glass by a margin of Minus-12.0 Rebounds. With that said, the Celtics have handled themselves rather well since the Restart, going 5-3 in Orlando, and winning four consecutive outings before resting anyone of consequence in Thursday’s finale against the Washington Wizards. Over the past eight games, they’ve outscored the opposition by a margin of 7.4 Points per Game, featuring a healthy Effective Field Goal Percentage (which takes into account the value of Three-Pointers) 55.0%.
Unlike their counterpart in this First Round Series, the Celtics enter the Playoffs largely healthy which is anther reason why they’re a popular dark horse contender in the Eastern Conference. Coming into the 2019-2020 campaign, many figured that they may in fact take a step back following the departure of All-Star Point Guard, Kyrie Irving, but it’s become crystal clear that in that regard it’s been addition by subtraction. For a variety of reasons, the Celtics and Irving were an ill-fated union (which the statistics absolutely supported), and this is a team that is certainly better off without him for a variety of reasons as well. First and foremost, his absence has allowed the younger talents to grow further, particularly Jayson Tatum (23.4 PTS, 45.0% FG, 40.3% 3FG, 7.0 REB, 3.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 20.4 PER), who has spent long stretches of the seasons knocking the door of stardom. Still only 22-Years Old, the Swingman has continued to develop his considerable offensive skillset, while benefitting greatly from Stevens’ positionless basketball approach. He has logged career-highs in a slew of categories, including Points (23.4), Rebounds (7.0), Assists (3.0), and Steals (1.4), while really taking his game to another level following the All-Star Break in which he has posted averages of 26.6 Points on an efficient 47.1% shooting from the field, including 46.0% from downtown, along with 7.1 Rebounds and 3.4 Assists per Game. With that said, Philadelphia has presented a quite a challenge to Tatum, who has struggled in his four encounters with the Sixers thus far, averaging 19.0 Points on a miserable 33.3% shooting overall, despite knocking down a solid 11-of-27 Three-Pointers (40.7%). The other reason as to why Boston doesn’t miss Irving one bit has been the presence of his direct replacement, Kemba Walker (20.4 PTS, 42.5% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 4.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 20.0 PER), who in his first season with the franchise has been everything they could have asked for. Spending the first eight seasons of his career in the relative obscurity of the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets, the four-time All-Star looks set to revel in his first trip to the Playoffs, even if i’s under the current circumstances. Walker averaged 20.5 Points on 42.5% shooting from the floor, including 38.1% from deep, 3.9 Rebounds, and 4.8 Assists despite missing Twenty-One Games this season, with the respite afforded by the leaguewide shutdown granting him the opportunity to return revitalized from a nagging leg injury. Though he hasn’t been as prolific as he was before the Restart (42.0% FG, 38.0% 3FG), he’s been nothing short of efficient in his return, nailing 47.9% overall and 41.4% from three.
Looking at this matchup with the Sixers, and consequently any further potential opponents, the Celtics will have to find a way to overcome their significant lack of size. This is something that you may not see exploited as much during the Regular Season when you’re playing different opponents with various strengths and weaknesses, but when the Playoffs arrive and you’re locked into a Best-of-Seven against a unit that holds a very distinct advantage in this department, it’s a whole new game, particularly in the Halfcourt where so much is decided as the pace of play slows inevitably slows down. It’s why Boston was humiliated in their 4-1, Gentleman’s Sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks a year ago, and absolutely why they’re concerned with dueling Embiid and former teammate Al Horford for a potential seven games. Stevens has the overachieving Daniel Theis (9.2 PTS, 56.6% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 6.6 REB 1.7 AST, 1.3 BLK, 17.9 PER), Enes Kanter (8.1 PTS, 57.2% FG, 7.4 REB, 1.0 AST, 22.4 PER), and Robert Williams (5.2 PTS, 72.7% FG, 4.4 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.2 BLK, 23.1 PER) at his disposal, with all three possessing clear strengths and weaknesses in this matchup. Theis has been much better than anyone could have guessed, but he has had some serous issues defending larger, skilled Bigs, while despite being reliably solid on the offensive end, Kanter has long been a bit of a sieve on defense. Look for the physical Williams, who has earned more and more playing time during the Seeding Games in Orlando following an injury plagued sophomore campaign, to see more action in this particular regard, even if it’s only to use up fouls on Embiid. Expect Stevens to aggressively send double-teams, particularly early in the shot clock in an attempt to get the ball out of Embiid’s hands and into that of the Supporting Cast, who have been inconsistent throughout the term. Keep an eye on how the Celtics handle this matchup, for it may just inform how they go about any others that they’ll likely face later down the road; both of the East’s higher-seeded teams, the Bucks and Toronto Raptors, are loaded with size and length in the Paint, which could cause serious problems.